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Jason Boyce: Amazon’s Robot Workforce Could Doom the American Worker

It would be easy to dismiss this shift toward robotics as only an issue for one company.

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Jason Boyce
The author of this Expert Opinion is Jason Boyce, founder of Avenue7Media

The year is 2030. Most humans have been replaced by machines in U.S. warehouses and factories. Millions of Americans are out of work and struggling to find jobs as robots pack, sort, ship, and carry out the myriad duties that just ten years ago were the purview of living, breathing workers. There are little job prospects in sight for these workers as automation has completely taken over numerous industries.

As fictitious as this sounds, it is not a scene out of a science-fiction novel, but instead a scenario that could occur in the very near future. Take, for example, Amazon’s recent launch of Proteus — the company’s first fully autonomous mobile robot. This should signal that much of the company’s workforce faces extinction by automation in the coming years.

Despite the inevitability that all industries will adopt some type of automation to improve productivity and profitability, it is important that lawmakers take steps now to protect the human workforce before big tech behemoths like Amazon begin to phase them out.

Amazon certainly has plenty of incentive to replace its human workforce with automated machines.

For instance, there are rumors that Amazon is worried it could run out of workers to hire for its U.S. warehouses by 2024 — putting  the tech giant’s service quality and growth plans at risk, creating additional motivation to embrace the capabilities of robots. Labor shortages would be a thing of the past.

The tech giant, which has a history of taking advantage of egregious tax loopholes, may even be using robots to game the system. For example, research and development expenses, a category that investment in automation could fall under, are deductible and eligible for capital expenditure tax credits. Meanwhile, only certain types of human capital investments are tax deductible.

With its concern solely on the company’s bottom line, Amazon has plenty of other motives to transition to complete automation; robots can’t unionize, they don’t get injured and require workers’ compensation, and they never go to managers and demand better working conditions.

While nobody but Amazon’s corporate executives know the full reason for the company’s speedy shift toward robotics, a good argument can be made that recent efforts by workers to unionize have played a significant role. The company has threatened to withhold benefits and wages from employees who support union efforts, terminated pro-union workers, and is attempting to overturn the Staten Island warehouse union victory.

A notoriously high injury rate

Amazon is also notorious for its high injury rates among employees. In 2021 alone, 34,000 serious injuries were reported on the job at Amazon — resulting  in plenty of negative press. The company has made it difficult for injured workers to be compensated or receive time off, deprived disabled and pregnant employees of reasonable accommodations, and has even fired workers who voiced their concerns about inadequate protections.

It would be easy to dismiss this shift toward robotics as only an issue for one company — despite Amazon employing one out of every 153 Americans — but experts believe that automation could destroy up to 73 million jobs in the U.S. as soon as 2030.

With the threat of millions of Americans being forced out of work due to automation, lawmakers in Washington need to act immediately to protect their constituents’ livelihoods and the future of the American worker.

One step elected officials could take is to pass a so-called “robot tax,” which would force companies to pay a fee every time they replace a human worker with an automated machine. Such a tax would not only make firms think twice about replacing their human workforce, but the revenues from the levy could also fund programs to upskill or re-skill workers.

Lawmakers could also learn from how the government handles environmental protections and require companies bidding on contracts to submit an impact assessment that outline the jobs robotics might eliminate, the types and number of jobs that might be created by the proposed project, and a plan to retrain workers who are directly affected by the use of robots.

Amazon and other businesses should not be blamed for wanting to make the transition to a robotic workforce, as all companies are tempted to cut expenses and improve their earnings. But it is important to recognize the potential threat these technologies pose for the U.S. labor market and, in particular, for the 1.1 million Amazon employees in the U.S.  We must implement policies that disincentivize tech companies from making an abrupt switch to automation that could eliminate the livelihoods of millions.

The complete adoption of a robotic workforce is no longer confined to the realm of science-fiction and if we want to prevent the rise of the machines from completely taking over industries, we need to confront this reality before it is too late.

Jason Boyce is the author of “The Amazon Jungle” and founder of Amazon managed services agency, Avenue7Media. Previously, Boyce was an 18-year Top-200 Amazon seller. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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